Takimag Classic

The Irreverent Mr. Mencken

December 02, 2012

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The Irreverent Mr. Mencken

Why do we still read Henry Louis Mencken? He was mostly a columnist, and columns are usually forgotten the day after they are published. One of the main reasons we still read Mencken is that he was enormously funny. The ability to write humorously about serious things is one of the rarest gifts an author can have.

Mencken also wrote about his own times with great detachment. In the 1930s, he had Freud pegged for a quack and predicted that the Soviet Union would run out of gas and collapse. People also still read Mencken because he wrote—in the bluntest possible way—that men are not equal and that it was insane to pretend that they were. He was a eugenicist and he ridiculed democracy. In our era of “sensitivity,” reading Mencken is almost a guilty pleasure.


INEQUALITY

This is what Mencken said about ordinary people:

The mob is inert and moves ahead only when it is dragged or driven….A geological epoch is required to rid it of a single error, and it is so helpless and cowardly that every fresh boon it receives, every lift upon its slow journey upward, must come to it as a free gift from its betters—as a gift not only free but forced.
Men Versus the Man

As for America:

Here the general average of intelligence, of knowledge, of competence, of integrity, of self-respect, of honor is so low that any man who knows his trade, does not fear ghosts, has read fifty good books, and practices the common decencies stands out as brilliantly as a wart on a bald head, and is thrown willy-nilly into a meager and exclusive aristocracy.

Mencken laughed at the idea that “all men are created equal.” He argued that the Declaration was a thumb in King George’s eye and that the phrase—if properly translated into ordinary English—meant: “Me and you are as good as anybody else, and maybe a damn sight better.” Mencken pointed out that there is no silly chatter about equality in the Constitution, which contained the rules for actually running the country.


DEMOCRACY AND GOVERNMENT

Mencken wrote:

If it were actually possible to give every citizen an equal voice in the management of the world…the democratic ideal would reduce itself to an absurdity in six months. There would be an end to all progress.
Men Versus the Man

Mencken was convinced that a democracy cannot produce honest leaders:

The truth, to the overwhelming majority of mankind, is indistinguishable from a headache. After trying a few shots of it on his customers, the aspiring statesman concludes sadly that it must hurt them, and after that he taps a more humane keg, and in a little while the whole audience is singing “Glory, glory hallelujah,” and when the returns come in the candidate is on his way to the White House….The candidates will all promise every man, woman and child in the country whatever he she or it wants. They’ll all be roving the land…curing warts by saying words over them, and paying off the national debt with money that no one will have to earn. They will all know that votes are collared under democracy, not by talking sense but by talking nonsense, and they will apply themselves to the job with a hearty yo-heave-ho.
A Mencken Chrestomathy

For Mencken, the less government the better:

The ideal government…is one which lets the individual alone—one which barely escapes being government at all.
Prejudices: Third Series

Mencken was, however, a firm believer in law and order. As a reporter he attended no less than nine hangings, and he thought the rope was an effective and humane way to clear out the dross.

“One of the main reasons we still read Mencken is that he was enormously funny.”


EUGENICS

Mencken was emphatically a eugenicist. This passage uses one of his favorite terms for poor whites—lintheads—from the bits of fluff that got caught in the hair of textile workers:

The great problem ahead of the United States is that of reducing the high differential birthrate of the inferior orders, for example, the hillbillies of Appalachia, the gimme farmers of the Middle West, the lintheads of the South, and the Negroes. The prevailing political mountebanks have sought to put down a discussion of this as immoral: their aim has been to prosper and increase the unfit as much as possible, always at the expense of the fit. But this can’t go on forever, else we’ll have frank ochlocracy in America, and the progress of civilization will be halted altogether.
Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks


RELIGION

Mencken was a famous scoffer:

What the faithful Christian professes to believe, if put into the form of an affidavit, would be such shocking nonsense that even bishops and archbishops would laugh at it.
A Treatise on the Gods

However, he recognized that faith was a great solace to many people and did not want to change their minds: In the preface to A Treatise on the Gods he wrote:

There is no purpose here to shake the faithful, for I am completely free of the messianic itch, and do not like converts. Let those who believe, and enjoy it, heave this book into the dustbin, and go on reading the War Cry [the Salvation Army magazine].


THE SOUTH

Mencken considered the entire South a cultural desert, “the Sahara of the Bozart.” As he put it, “There are single acres of Europe that house more first-rate men than all the states south of the Potomac.”

When Mencken wrote a column calling Arkansas “the capital of Moronia” and claiming that the people were starving to death through congenital stupidity, the Little Rock legislature voted to censure him. When Mencken was asked to comment, he said, “I didn’t make Arkansas the butt of ridicule. God did it.”

The Arkansas House of Representatives then offered prayers for Mencken’s soul. When the AP asked him what he thought about that, he said:

I felt a great uplift, shooting sensations in my nerves, and the sound of many things in my ears and I knew the house of representatives was praying for me again.

Mencken opposed lynching and thought Southerners should take up bullfighting instead: “every bull that was killed would save a Christian Ethiope.”

Mencken thought it would have been much better for both the North and the South if the South had won the war:

Whatever the defects of the new commonwealth below the Potomac, it would have at least been a commonwealth founded upon a concept of human inequality, and with a superior minority at the helm.

Mencken called the Gettysburg Address a “genuinely stupendous” piece of oratory, but:

Let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday, the doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—“that government of the people, by the people, and for the people” should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves.


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